Building my brain furniture through the classics

Education | Chelsea Boes

Building my brain furniture through the classics

Socrates (left) and Billy Joel
Socrates: From The History of Philosophy by Thomas Stanley • Bill Joel: Getty Images/Photo by Astrid Stawiarz

An old roommate told me that if one walks late into a conversation, one should listen for 15 minutes before speaking. The principle serves as a good metaphor for education, much as I hate to admit it. Because getting educated means preparing to join a very old, very big conversation. It takes patience.

I met this peculiar thing called “classical education” my senior year of public high school, just about the time I was teaching myself to paint and to love classic rock ’n’ roll. Something about the term “classic” rings trustworthy.

The summer after high school graduation, while I formed endless crab cakes at a local restaurant for rich people, I envisioned the Greeks with their flowing beards and wax tablets. Aristotle, Plato, Socrates. Billy Joel played over the kitchen radio while I chopped parsley, and I fell in love with his piano. The classic guys. I could stand to know them a little better. My ambition had three strands: Listen to rock ’n’ roll for the sake of your senses and soul. It will make you a better writer. Teach yourself to paint for the sake of learning to look at things closely. It will make you a better writer. Get classically educated for the sake of your cerebrum. It will make you a better writer.

Get your risk-free, 30-Day FREE Trial Membership right now.

We see you’ve been enjoying the content on our exclusive member website. Ready to get unlimited access to all of WORLD’s member content?
Get your risk-free, 30-Day FREE Trial Membership right now.
(It’s quick and painless, we promise!)

Already a Member? Sign in here:

More rumors of classical education wafted to me through the internet because I had started peeking into a classical college. Bent strongly toward getting the best education I could, in the way I chose, I picked up a paintbrush in my right hand while I blasted the Beatles. I didn’t want painting lessons. Not even an instruction book. I knew in my deep heart that an instructor or book would make me paint a still life of chunk of fruit, and I didn’t have that kind of time. I didn’t want to start at the beginning. I wanted to paint the human face immediately.

I didn’t know that my haste and independence would in some ways cause me to struggle against the classical education I was on the verge of pursuing. I shelled out $700 of my restaurant money for my very own set of Britannica Great Books of the Western World,and devoted a year to reading the Western epics. I waded through the underworld with Homer and Virgil, and walked with Eve and Adam through Milton’s Paradise Lost. Part of me wanted to get right to writing. But I had to read first. I had to shut up for 15 minutes and figure out what my predecessors in the great conversation of literature had already said. I needed to take time to fill my heart with the stories we already have. I needed time to allow the best thinkers and storytellers to build my brain furniture. I needed a classical education.

Be quick to listen, slow to speak. The lesson came hard. I stayed up all night with books. Later, I survived four semesters of Latin. I had to undergo the rigor of logic class before being allowed to taste Quintilian in rhetoric. Soon I came to realize that the Great Conversation was worth listening to it for its own sake, and not just to find out where I could fit a word in edgewise. I’m about to graduate. Looking back over my time at college—which has been full of paintbrushes, Billy Joel, and Socrates—I find myself a better writer. What’s more: I’m safer from my self-centrism. More and more, I love the stories that came before I showed up, rather than the sound of my own voice.

View this article on the full website